Science Speak: How Scientists Use Words Differently Than Everyone Else

By Steve West | 11 years ago

As an adult I’ve found myself pursuing science education at a rate that would make my highschool self reel. Teenage me did the bare minimum in science class, and only when taking Physics as a senior did a spark of interest arise. The problem is that for most of us laymen the terminology and word usage by scientists is confounding. They insist on using words that have a different, or at least altered, meaning when translated over to the common colloquialism. In other words: 16 year old me wanted to put in the bare minimum of work, and these sciency jerks were making homework tedious.

It makes things difficult when trying to explain simple concepts to a friend. For a time I was heavily into evolutionary biology, and not for political reasons. I found the whole concept and study of mutations within species fascinating. I still do. But I was once asked to explain how I could believe observable evolutionary mutations had existed in the wild, and not just forced in a lab. My mind was clear on the subject, but the words failed me. Because I relied on the words I’d read in scientific journals, or in newsgroup discussions.

The word “evolution” itself is highly contentious. Scientists hold evolution as a fact, and have proven that it does occur. However there is a theory of evolution that is used to explain how it happens, and why. This is ever changing as new information is discovered. This is a principle aspect of the study of evolution that misinformed people use to prove evolution to just be a bunch of mumbo jumbo.

A table of words that are used differently by scientists than how the general public understands them appears in an article in Physics Today, showcasing just how dire the communication problem has become. Scientists need to learn to communicate better with the public. We live in an age where information is the most valuable resource and obfuscating that knowledge with equivocation, even if unintentional, leads to more confusion. And more importantly it leads to necessary actions that need to be taken being argued over while our problems get worse.

Click on the table in the gallery below to see the full image.